Mob hysteria

Back in the 70s, before my wife and I moved to Pasadena for seminary, we were choir members together in a small church in northern California.  One year, the choir performed an Easter cantata accompanied by a multimedia presentation (translation: two slide projectors instead of one).  Like the Wizard of Oz, I operated the equipment and narrated the program unseen from behind the rear-projection screens (which I fabricated from white shower curtain liners!) while the choir sang out front.

At one point, I put up an image of Jesus hanging on the cross.  The script called for the choir to turn around to face him, then taunt and jeer, shaking their fists and calling for his crucifixion.  Because of my vantage point, I could see them–they were facing me.  And at that moment, the actions of the Jerusalem mob struck me in a way they never had before; I felt confused and crushed.  How could such a thing happen?

Here’s the set-up in Matthew:

Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd.  At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas.  So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”  For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.  (Matt 27:15-18, NIV)

Outside of the gospels, we know little about Barabbas or, for that matter, the custom to which Matthew refers.  The way Matthew describes the event, it seems that Pilate deliberately chose Barabbas as a strategic ploy to get Jesus released.  By reputation, Barabbas was a terrorist in Roman custody for murder.  Pilate placed a stark choice before the people: whom do you want?  Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Messiah?  Surely reminding people that Jesus was thought by some to be the Messiah would put things in proper perspective.

It didn’t.

Reading between the lines, we might guess that Pilate miscalculated on two fronts.  First, he underestimated the extent to which the crowd would actually consider Barabbas a nationalist hero, one who stood against the hated empire.  Many of the crowd who acclaimed Jesus on Palm Sunday were Galilean pilgrims cheering on their pick for Celebrity of the Year.  Absent these voices, the crowd may actually have preferred Barabbas to Jesus.

But Pilate also underestimated the lengths that the Jewish leaders would go to get their way:

But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.  “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.  “Barabbas,” they answered.  “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.  They all answered, “Crucify him!”  “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.  But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”  (Matt 27:20-23, NIV)

We don’t know what they did to convince the crowd.  Again, no doubt they played on nationalist sentiments to portray Barabbas as a freedom-fighter.  And they may have used their own authority to insist that Jesus was a false messiah deserving of death.

But I also wonder if they didn’t go about inflaming people with anti-Roman invective.  “Listen to that pagan.  It’s obvious that he wants to get Jesus off.  Well, we’re not going to let him win, are we?  Let’s stand up to him together!”

This is, of course, pure speculation on my part.  But it’s just the kind of propaganda that would explain the crowd’s reaction.  Social psychologists remind us that it takes very little prompting for human beings to form in-group loyalties and out-group prejudices.  I can easily imagine Pilate’s disdainful attitude, treating the crowd as just so many cattle to be herded this way or that.  It would take no effort at all for the chief priests to play on the people’s hatred of Rome and its representative, turning a choice between Barabbas and Jesus into an us vs. them contest.

When the crowd began to clamor for Jesus’ destruction, an exasperated Pilate asked, “Why?  What crime has he committed?”  For an answer, the people only screamed louder: “Crucify him!”  The situation was getting out of control, and Pilate, who had the job of keeping order in the region, had to give in to the crowd’s demand.

As will be mentioned in the next post, this passage from Matthew has historically been misused to proclaim the sole guilt of the Jews in murdering God’s Messiah, and to justify their mistreatment and persecution as “Christ-killers.”  But what I see in the story is a group of people with strong ethnic loyalties whose emotions could be manipulated, normal people who could get caught up in the fever of the moment when gathered together as a mob to rail against a common enemy.

Just like many people who still appear in the headlines today.

Just like many of us, given the chance.